While filming, director Bernardo Bertolucci tried to explain the point of the film to Marlon Brando, suggesting that his character was Bertolucci's "manhood" and that Maria Schneider's character was his "dream girl." Brando later maintained that he had absolutely no idea of what Bertolucci was suggesting or even talking about.
After the film's release in Europe, director Bernardo Bertolucci, producer Alberto Grimaldi, Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider were all indicted by a court in Bologna, Italy for making the film under the term "ultalitarian pornography." They were all acquitted of the charge shortly thereafter, with Bertolucci losing his civil rights (including his right to vote) for five years.
Jean-Pierre Léaud (Tom) had so much respect for Marlon Brando (Paul) that he was afraid to meet him. Because of that, he shot all his scenes on Saturdays, when Brando refused to work. Thus, the two never met in the entire making of the film on and off screen.
When Marlon Brando arrived for the first day of shooting, he had on makeup "two centimeters thick," according to director Bernardo Bertolucci. Brando, who had applied his own makeup, did not understand the natural, low-light conditions cinematographer Vittorio Storaro was going to work with to get the look of the film. Bertolucci had to remove much of the make-up from Brando's face with a handkerchief.
According to Maria Schneider, the famous "butter scene" was never in the script and it was improvised at the last minute by Marlon Brando and Bernardo Bertolucci, without consulting her. Though the sodomy act was faked, her real tears in the film clearly testified to her state of shock.
The story Paul tells Jeanne about his mother, about how she taught him to appreciate nature, which he illustrates with his reminiscence of his dog, Dutchy, hunting rabbits in a mustard field, is real, based on Marlon Brando's own recollections of his past.
The idea of this movie grew from director Bernardo Bertolucci's own sexual fantasies, stating that he "once dreamed of seeing a beautiful nameless woman on the street and having sex with her, without ever knowing who she was."
Maria Schneider gave frank interviews in wake of the film's controversy. She claimed that she had slept with fifty men and seventy women, that she was "bisexual completely," and that she used heroin, cocaine and marijuana.
Such was the controversy over Last Tango in Paris (1972) that the print was smuggled into the U.S. for its debut in a diplomatic pouch from Italy. The film was due to have its premiere at the New York Film Festival where tickets were going for $150.
Director Bernardo Bertolucci shot a scene which showed Marlon Brando's genitals, but explained the following year, "I had so identified myself with Brando that I cut it out of shame for myself. To show him naked would have been like showing me naked."
Argentine Tango composer Astor Piazzolla was going to write the music for this film and had actually submitted demos to director Bernardo Bertolucci. Bertolucci instead chose famed jazz musician Gato Barbieri as the film's composer, because he felt that his saxophone playing would give the film a more rich and sultry feel for the film.
When Paul puts on the Colonel's kepi (the French military hat that had belonged to Jeanne's father) and says to Jeanne, "How do you like your hero? Over easy or sunny side up?" Marlon Brando, the author of most of the film's English dialogue, is using egg imagery because the gold braid on an officer's hat is referred to as "scrambled eggs" in the U.S. military. Brando attended Shattuck Military Academy (from which he was booted out) and failed his physical for the U.S. Army during World War II, due to a bum knee hurt playing high school football.
During the publicity for the film's release, director Bernardo Bertolucci said Maria Schneider developed an "Oedipal fixation with Marlon Brando." Schneider said Marlon Brando sent her flowers after they first met, and "From then on, he was like a daddy." In a later interview, Schneider denied this, saying, "Brando tried to be very paternalistic with me, but it really wasn't any father-daughter relationship."
In protest against the film only receiving a minor cinema cut in the U.K., a private prosecution was brought against United Artists in January 1974 by 69-year-old Edward Shackleton, a Salvation Army member and leading member of the executive committee of the pro-censorship Festival of Light party. Although the case went as far as the Old Bailey, it collapsed when it was ruled that the Obscene Publications Act did not, at that time, apply to films.
Almost ten years after its original release, United Artists re-released this film in 1982 with an R-rating, and not the infamous X-rating it had obtained in 1972. The film was only a couple of minutes shorter than the preferred director's cut.
This film created considerable controversy in Canada. The Ontario Board of Film Censors passed a cut version of the film to be shown in theaters. Upon release, the board received over one hundred complaints from the public from the Toronto area alone. In Nova Scotia, the film was rejected outright and the film board attempted to lay obscenity charges on the distributor.